Tuesday, 15 February 2011

80s Movies: Dirty Dancing (1987)

For a movie built so strongly around the concept of "the time of your life", Dirty Dancing doesn't really make so much of either its holiday park setting, or any particularly enjoyable experiences for the cast. Jennifer Grey as Frances 'Baby' Houseman goes through the kind of adolescent traumas you might expect wherever you were - and at 17, there's a bit of a question mark hanging over the whole friendship with Patrick Swayze's character, dance teacher Johnny Castle.

That aside though, I think any of us could empathise with at least part of the movie - whether you're a girl (or boy) wishing for that swept-off-your-feet first romance, a concerned parent who actually sympathises with the adults in the film, or someone who can relate to the bit-parts and the seemingly futile nature of their existence, going through the motions of this holiday park hell.

The Plot

As I said above, this is the same coming-of-age kind of story you might find in any setting in the 80s - a holiday park, a high school, space - with the slightly seedy and very lower-class Johnny Castle taking quite an interest in Frances Houseman (it doesn't seem like a particularly subtle coincidence that the character's nickname is 'Baby').

The thing is, when she's with the dancers, Baby's life is pretty good. There's a lot of fun, and a lot of hip-thrusting and grinding and generally enjoyable looking times to be had. As much as any modern film glorifies violence or swearing, Dirty Dancing glorifies this devil-may-care approach to life - even in the face of harrowing scenes like Penny Johnson (played by a much under-valued Cynthia Rodes) in agonising pain after an abortion gone wrong.

Granted, her pain is the result of society's neglect and a partner who doesn't care about her, but even this displacement seems like over-simplification of the dancers' world into one where, while you're within it with no outside contact, nothing bad can really happen.

Ultimately that's what we're all looking for in life - sanctuary, a place to hole up and hide out from the stresses and the strains. If there's synth, sax and Swayze to be found there, I'm in.

The Music

(I've Had) The Time of My Life is one of the greatest movie anthems of all time. It's also one of the few really, really great 80s movie theme duets - along with Short Circuit's Come and Follow Me, Mannequin's Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now, and Up Where We Belong from An Officer and a Gentleman. The synth-and-sax 80s sound might make them fall into the cheese basket (so to speak) these days, but they're incredible songs, so carefully written and yet so simple in their own unique messages.

Flash forward to 2010, and the song's still hitting the charts. Admittedly Dan wasn't too praising of The Time (Dirty Bit) in his review of the Black Eyed Peas' The Beginning, but that's because it's a terrible, terrible album. As for the song - well, it's like painting a moustache on the Mona Lisa and calling it 'modern'. But it shows the durability of the original, and how much it means to people even now - I can't imagine any other reason to buy the Black Eyed Peas' hash-up other than sentimentality.

Rant over, because I want to talk about Patrick Swayze. She's Like the Wind is simple, steady and powerful. It's nice to see a song built around a single simile, with measured repetition of the best lyrics and more wonderful 80s sax. I'm not sure love songs will ever be this good again.

I always think Hungry Eyes is Swayze, too, but that one's Eric Carmen. It was written by two of the three who co-wrote (I've Had) The Time of My Life, John DeNicola and Franke Previte (Donald Markowitz was the third) and lacks a little of the raw emotion of She's Like the Wind, but is still a pretty great song.

Dirty Dancing (Original Soundtrack from the Vestron Motion Picture) - Various Artists

80s Movies

In February, POPSICULTURE are dedicating the month to a look back at the iconic films of the 1980s - a decade whose films continue to draw massive audiences when they are shown on TV. To follow posts in this series, check the 80s Movies label or sign up to the dedicated RSS feed.

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